Over the past four decades, Saturday Night Live has launched the careers of countless A-List comedians and defined the best of modern American humor. To celebrate the landmark show’s mega milestone and the 40th anniversary special airing on February 15, Gotham sat down with the current class of SNL-ers to talk legacy, comedy, New York, and favorite SNL moments.
According to NBC lore, Saturday Night Live came about for a very simple reason—Johnny Carson wanted more time off. His Tonight Show reruns played on weekends, but Carson, eager for occasional breaks from the grind of nightly broadcasts, demanded they be available for airing during the week. In 1975 the network, under president Herb Schlosser, decided to develop a new program, NBC’s Saturday Night, to fill one of Carson’s weekend slots. Lorne Michaels, who had made his name as a writer on Laugh-In, and NBC executive Dick Ebersol were tasked with creating the show.
With its topical blend of outlandish, irreverent humor and wicked satire, NBC’s Saturday Night (it became Saturday Night Live in 1977), broadcast live from Studio 8H, rocked the television industry’s rafters from its inception, becoming a runaway hit as well as a pop-culture touchstone. Few programs have launched as many A-list stars—Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Mike Myers, Al Franken (now a senator for Minnesota), Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and Seth Meyers are among the 130 performers who have called SNL home. As for the famous opening line—Chevy Chase said it on the first show, and cast or guest hosts have repeated it ever since, indelibly rooting the show in a city that has helped define it.
To celebrate SNL’s extraordinary history (it has received 40 Emmys, more than any other TV show in history) and the 40th Anniversary Special airing live from Studio 8H on February 15 (8–11 PM ET), we went to the source—the current cast of Saturday Night Live. We asked them to interview one another about the show and its legacy, the meaning of funny, favorite SNL moments, how they got to 30 Rock, and how they nail those wicked impersonations.
KENAN THOMPSON—KATE MCKINNON
KT: What has been your favorite moment with a host?
KM: I did a sketch with Charlize Theron [in May 2014] where we played cat ladies. I wanted her to do an Aileen Wuornos-type thing [Wuornos was the convicted serial killer Theron played in the 2003 film Monster, for which she won an Oscar] and gosh darn it, she did. She out-weirded me, and I was impressed.
KT: That was an epic moment. I watched it from the sidelines and it was like seeing history happen. What inspired the Russian meteorite expert thing?
KM: It wasn’t my idea at all. There really was a meteor that hit Siberia. The writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider pitched a woman who had wished that it had hit Russia because Russia is so terrible.
KT: You have firsthand knowledge?
KM: I do not. But I can imagine.
KT: What about [impersonating] Penélope Cruz?
KM: That’s a voice you don’t forget.
KATE MCKINNON—TARAN KILLAM
KM: I’m having trouble asking the question because I’m just staring at your face.
TK: Oh, so you’re captivated?
KM: Talk about SNL and New York.
TK: Without New York, SNL would not know how to introduce the show.
KM: Yes, “Live from… it’s Saturday Night!”
TK: That just doesn’t have the same ring. You know, SNL is New York and New York is SNL—it’s chaotic, it’s the city. SNL has helped New York heal, and New York has helped SNL stay relevant and contemporary. It’s the greatest city in the world, and in my opinion, SNL is the greatest show in the world.
KM: Define funny.
TK: An observation on a universal truth that surprises you with a take or insight that you may not have acknowledged or internalized, but it registers with you so it elicits laughter, a spontaneous reaction.
KM: Taran, you do so many unbelievable impressions that inspire me every week. One of my favorites is your Brad Pitt. Where did it come from?
TK: From a desperate need to be like him. I also like to do impressions that not a lot of other people do. I hadn’t seen anyone doing a Brad Pitt impression, so I used that in my audition for this job.
KM: Was there a Brad Pitt moment you latched on to?
TK: Little pieces from Fight Club, Seven, and Twelve Monkeys.
KM: So you took little snippets and you planted them, and they grew into beautiful plants.
TK: Yes, I approach comedy like a botanist.
KM: I approach comedy like an unemployed person.
TK: [Laughs] Gotta get that check, gotta get that paper!